I don’t write book reviews, but this time of year, I feel obliged to let folks know about some books of local interest. Books are still the easiest gifts to wrap, and the most interesting to unwrap.
Archaeologist Charlie Faulkner surprised me by writing a book that, though not thick, contains about all that’s known about the most tragic confrontation with Indians in Knox County history. Massacre at Cavet’s Station: Frontier Tennessee during the Cherokee Wars takes us inside the negotiations of life on the frontier during that uncertain era when Tennessee wasn’t yet a state, and the scariest guy who walked the woods at night was named Doublehead.
The new coffee-table book, Tennessee River: Sparkling Gem of the South is a gorgeous series of aerial photographs, impressions of an ever-changing river and its towns and cities from the air. Knoxville’s the oldest of those cities. But from the air, you can jump to conclusions. Of the four photos of Knoxville, one is of an asphalt highway tangle, and Neyland Stadium is central to two others. The author describes Knoxville, “where football is not only a game but is like a religion. Famous for its university and football team, sports fans would probably paint the buildings and dye the river orange, the team’s color, if they could get away with it.” He doesn’t say much more, which is probably good, given his attitude toward syntax, and I can’t tell that he noticed much more from up yonder. He admits he likes Chattanooga best.
Tellin’ It for the Truth is actor-turned-historian/journalist Bill Landry’s latest collection of stories. The author has traveled more widely in East Tennessee than anyone I can name except maybe the camera people and producers who accompanied him, and though he’s written books about his Heartland years before, he has lots more, perhaps even some true ones, and the ones I’ve read are pretty funny.
Bill does nurture some vocational interest in the truth, and when I gigged the WBIR institution a year or two ago about how “local” The Heartland Series really was, he gently corrected me.
I’d suspected for years that their TV crew might have driven as far as Eastern West Virginia, perhaps even Central Ontario, for some of these stories. When I drive around, what I find are a lot of Walmarts and Go Vols mailboxes and pickup drivers who think I should drive much faster on their country roads than I do. I rarely encounter such handsome people, these guys in battered fedoras playing “Bonaparte’s Retreat” on a hand-carved kazoo, that Heartland seemed so dependably to turn up, week after week.
But I believe Bill about that. Most of Heartland’s subjects were places you could drive to this afternoon and make it back in time for Perry Mason—whether the people they profiled are still there doing such odd and interesting things or not.
Unexpectedly, I found on my desk a copy of The Harmon Kreis Family of East Tennessee, by Max Kreis: This family’s book is an extraordinarily compelling family history. Usually, family histories are of interest only to the families implicated, and I don’t expect this heavy-duty coffee-table hardback to be widely available. But if you run across it, pick it up, if you can, and have a look. Harmon Kreis isn’t a name that resounds familiarly in local ears, but maybe it should. Born to a German-speaking Swiss immigrant, that patriarch Kreis became a prominent marble industrialist, state legislator, and Knox County sheriff. It was his grandson, Pete, who was the professional Indy car racer killed on the track at Indianapolis in 1934. His fate inspired what may be the most remarkable gravestone in Knox County. The book has lots of surprises, with illustrations ranging from color reproductions of oil paintings to newspaper cartoons, but the biggest surprise in the book is a photo, a still of a recently discovered film, of the fatal wreck, with Kreis’ car hurtling through the air above the Brickyard.
UT Professor Ernie Freeberg, who lives in Cas Walker’s old house (and whom we profiled a few years ago), wrote The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America. It’s been praised nationally, deservedly. For anybody half-interested in history, and up to here with the Sesquicentennial, it’s a fascinating read about what is, more or less, the dawn of the modern age. Nothing much about Knoxville, except that the context is important to understanding local history. Knoxville’s biggest growth spurt happened just as the lights were coming on. And probably no American city had a longer wait between the first city-limits household to get electric lights and the last. In Knoxville, that gap was about 70 years.
For those who haven’t had quite enough of the Sesquicentennial, get Joan Markel’s paperback, Knoxville in the Civil War, one of the better selections in the Arcadia series, as easy to put down as a spicy snack, whether you’re a Civil War re-enactor or a neophyte.
I was honored to write the back-cover blurb for Julie Paine Fritz’s memoir, Remembering a Hill. It has a charm to it that makes it better than your typical neighborhood history. No strict chronology, it’s a series of vignettes about a place a place and time—Bearden in the 1950s and ’60s—that was neither city nor country nor suburb either.
As it happens, Fritz is the younger sister of the late maverick attorney Don Paine, whom I wrote about last week.
Everybody’s been talking about Keel Hunt’s book, Coup, whose title is only a little bit of an exaggeration of Lamar Alexander’s early swearing in as governor in 1979, calculated to prevent incumbent Gov. Ray Blanton from doing any more damage. I have to admit a blind spot in my perspective. I’m not drawn to histories of eras that I read about in the newspapers. Too old to be news, too recent to allow a safe distance, and the frisson of the exotic, that I associate with history. Someday 1979 will be funny, but we’re not there yet. I hear it’s a good book.